Saturday, 24 January 2015

My Other Blog

Most readers of this blog will probably be blissfully unaware that I have a second bog which I write from time to time. Titled Paul’s Beer Travels the blog follows a similar theme to my main blog, but is more of a travelogue with a beery theme. Amongst the places I have covered are Berlin, Pilsen, Bamberg and Munich. Closer to home, I have written about Edinburgh, Liverpool, Whitstable and the Cotswolds.

I haven’t posted anything on the blog since April last year, but whilst trawling through various unfinished drafts, I came upon this incomplete piece about a trip I made to Helsinki, back in February 2009. I had started writing the post in the summer of that year, but for some reason (laziness, probably!), had never finished it.

I decided it should see the light of day, and completed it a couple of days ago. If you are interested in learning a bit more about Finland’s capital city, and quite a bit less about its beer culture (expensive!), then do follow the link and see what you think.

See you on the other side, as the “buy now” button says on all good internet marketing sales pages!

Monday, 19 January 2015

Not All Doom in Cornwall

Part of the Connoisseur's Choice range

My recent critique on Doom Bar whilst chronicling the rise of Britain’s top selling cask ale, was probably more than a little unfair on Doom Bar’s creator; Sharp’s of Rock in Cornwall. Hopefully the piece which follows will help set the record straight.

Maybe it’s a peculiarly English thing to knock the success of others, but my recent post about Doom Bar was more about the way this inoffensive but perfectly drinkable beer has spread inexorably, like the “red weed” in the “War of the Worlds” across the nation’s bars, rather than a criticism of the brewery which spawned it.

All power then to Sharp’s elbow for coming from nowhere to create the UK’s No.1 best selling cask ale in the space of less than 20 years. Despite the sniping and ridicule from beer connoisseurs and writers, including me in my recent post, it has to be said that many of Sharp’s other beers are extremely good, and included amongst them are some real classics.

Stuart Howe, the company’s Head of Craft Brewing and Innovation, has a reputation which is internationally acclaimed. Stuart has been involved with Sharp’s since 2002, swapping a career in engineering for the life of a brewer. His goal remains to make great beers which appeal to true connoisseurs but at the same time are accessible to the average drinker.

Returning to Sharp’s beers; I have tried Cornish Coaster, which at 3.6% ABV is the weakest beer in the company’s portfolio, but I have never come across the 4.4% ABV Own, or the 5.0% ABV Special. I also note from the company’s website that Sharp’s brew a 5.2% ABV Cornish Pilsner, which they claim is inspired by the great Pilsner beers from the Czech Republic. Some 30 outlets in London are listed as stocking this "pale straw beer which is fermented with a genuine Czech yeast then lagered on a bed of Saaz hops to create stunning, zesty herbal notes and a delicious clean, citrus flavour."

Sharp’s also produce some highly respected bottled beers. These include the attractively packaged Atlantic Pale Ale, 4.5% ABV and Wolf Rock Red IPA 4.8%.   Also not forgotten are Chalky’s Bite, produced in collaboration with Rick Stein, plus the lesser known Chalky’s Bark. Pride of place though surely goes to the Sharp’s Connoisseurs Choice range.

Beers for the real Connoisseur
There are nine stunning beers in the range, each one numbered from 1 to 9. The only one I’ve tried is the amazing No. 1 Quadrupel Ale. Brewed with four malts, four hops, four yeasts and four fermentations; the result is a beer which transcends beer styles, a unique fusion of a Quadrupel, a strong dark ale and a barley wine that thinks it's a port. There are also three Single Brew Reserves, numbered 2, 4 & 8, with each representing the years 2011, 2012 and 2013 respectively. The thinking behind these is that each Single Brew Reserve profiles the best hops from the year it was brewed.

Completing the range is the No. 3 Honey Spice Tripel, the No. 5 Spice Red, the No. 6 Dubbel Coffee Stout, No. 7 Honey Spice IPA and the No.9 Six Vintage Blend. The latter is, as its name suggests, a blend of several beers, including a Trappist Dubbel, a sweet barley wine, a Quadrupel fermented with yeast from a world renowned Trappist brewery, a honey wheat beer which has been naturally soured by lactic acid and finally a US dry-hopped double IPA. The company claim that this blend of aged beers represents the evolution of brewing at Sharp’s.

This all sound pretty good and a far cry from the dreaded Doom Bar. However, let’s not forget that without the success of this ubiquitous best seller, Sharp’s would probably not be able to afford the luxury of brewing the Connoisseurs Choice range. Credit should also be given to new owners Molson Coors, who have not only invested heavily in the brewery at Rock but have given the management team there a free hand to develop these sorts of beers. It’s also a pretty safe bet that Molson Coors will have provided technical expertise and support to Stuart Howe and his team.

So next time you see a pump on the bar dispensing Doom Bar, think that in its own way it is helping one of the country’s most respected brewer to turn out some truly great and world-beating beers.

Sunday, 18 January 2015

Look at Me Everybody!

Well we’re already halfway through January and in my, albeit somewhat limited experience of what’s happening in the pub trade I haven’t seen much evidence of this Dryanuary nonsense. Admittedly I blocked the ads for this self-serving, self-effacing exercise for people to blow their own trumpets, from appearing on my own Facebook page, as I was sick of seeing them pop up every time I logged on. If the money raised is supposed to help fund cancer research, then splashing adverts all over social media is hardly an example of money well spent!

Leaving aside the dubious nature of the fundraising itself, I am yet to be convinced of the value of any of this, apart from helping the cause of the anti-alcohol brigade, whilst at the same time helping to swell the coffers of the charities concerned. We all know charity is big business these days; a drive past the flashy head-office of the Charity’s Aid Foundation at the nearby Kings Hill Business-Park yesterday confirmed this. It is also no big secret that the large charities, and quite a few of the not so large, pay their top executives massively inflated salaries. An acquaintance of mine hawks his services as a data base manager around various such organisations on a short-term contract basis. I wouldn’t dream of asking how much he earns from this, but the fact him and his wife can afford to spend several months each year in Australia tells me it is certainly not small beer!

To return to the Dryanuary campaign for a moment, I wish to state that I have nothing against people who, for genuine health or indeed personal reasons, wish to abstain from drink for a period of time. If it genuinely makes them fell good then fine; but please leave out the self-satisfied smugness and please don’t plaster your “achievement” all over social media.

That said, there is no proven health benefit from giving up alcohol totally unless, of course, one has a serious drink problem or is a registered alcoholic. Cut down, if you must and drink sensibly – but not by following the ridiculous Department of Health guidelines where, as we all know, the figures were literally “plucked out of thin air”!

Also, January is the worst month possible for people to be abstaining, especially as far as the licensed trade is concerned. I know from our own experience of running an off-licence that whilst Christmas is undoubtedly good for trade, you definitely feel the flip-side come January. After the over-indulgence and massive over-spend of the festive season, trade in January falls off a cliff. This plays serious havoc with your cash flow, as the Christmas bills all start to come in. I remember us nearly going under one New Year when a local builder’s merchants insisted on a full 30 days credit for a large order, mainly of spirits, we had supplied for Christmas. We of course, had our suppliers to pay, but on top of this we had paid upfront for a large chunk of this order, as the local Cash & Carry does what it says on the tin, i.e. you pay for your goods at time of purchase!

We learned the hard way, and after that it was cash strictly on delivery, but this example illustrates the problem facing small businesses that without sufficient cash to cover the day to day running costs, many risk going under. The last thing a cash-strapped publican wants is silly self-centred people going “dry” for the month, just because their mates are doing it. Get a life for f***s sake!

In the eight years since we sold our off-licence business, the situation the licensed trade finds itself in has got steadily worse. January now even more so than before, can be the month which breaks a publican’s business. This one month can undermine all the hard work of the year before and, at a time when most people are looking forward to the year ahead, starts the New Year off on a real low. If you really care about our pubs it is definitely NOT the month to be going dry!

Sheffield Blogger, Wee Beefy summed this up nicely on a recent post.

“No-one is suggesting you should, say, drink to excess at Christmas and then carry on a booze fuelled orgy of over indulgence into January. What I am saying is, do continue to go to the pub, and keep money running through the tills of the places you would expect to drink in, or outside of, when the summer sun comes.”

“A friend of mine recently said he was giving up alcohol for January. He wasn't doing it as part of a charity campaign, but he noticed his friends were doing it and wanted to join in. I'm not for a second suggesting that my pub and bus stop learnt medical acumen stretches to doubting the benefits of a dry month, but I do know that January is not the month to do it. Someone who works in one of Sheffield's numerous real ale pubs said he had friends who'd made the same threat, sorry, promise. His response had been “Well, I wonder if there's some way I can go and fuck up your business in January as well.” He was joking, of course. Sort of.”

Dave Bailey, over at HardKnott Dave, makes an eloquent plea along the same lines. Dave of course, runs his own HardKnott Brewery, up in the Lake District, and suffers from exactly the same cash flow problems I mentioned earlier. It’s even worse for a brewery, especially when you have to keep chasing strapped-for-cash publicans to pay for the beer you supplied them in the run up to Christmas.

He summarises the problem by stating, “What we would all like in business is solid, dependable and constant cash-flow. Buying in of raw materials, production, delivery and timely payment of invoices. Seasonality mucks this up something terrible. We need to try and find enough cash resources to fund the production of extra beer in November and December if we are to fully benefit from this peak in trade. On top of the risk of not selling what beer has been made, there is the difficulty and cost of finding that cash.”

I will end on a similar note to Dave, and that is a suggestion to give Tryanuary a go as an alternative. This is where you try something new, or something different during January instead.  As their website says: "Make it your mission to seek out new INDEPENDENT breweries, beers, bars and bottle shops, and share your discoveries with people throughout January. This isn't about drinking more. It's about trying something different. Tasting something new. Experiencing something interesting."

Here, here!!

Saturday, 17 January 2015

The Doom of Doom Bar

The UK's No. 1

Keen observers of the brewing industry will have noticed that last year Sharp’s Doom Bar became the No.1 selling cask beer in the UK! This is good news for Sharp’s of course, but it’s not so good for the nation’s beer lovers. In pubs up and down the land, local beers are being elbowed off the bar to make way for this all pervasive brew; small wonder then that many are referring to this phenomenon as the “Doom of Doom Bar”!

So how did this beer, which didn’t even exist 20 years ago, come from nowhere to become Britain’s biggest selling cask beer, eclipsing even the likes of Greene King IPA and Fuller’s London Pride?

Sharp's Brewery was founded in 1994 by businessman Bill Sharp. For Bill beer-making was little more than a hobby. He had no background in brewing and according to legend took the recipe for his beer from a home-brew kit. It was rumoured that he started off making his own beer in his shed because he was newly-married and his wife didn't like him going to the pub!

After some success with his home-made efforts, Sharp decided to try brewing commercially, particularly after realising that there was almost no competition locally. He found premises just outside the Cornish village of Rock, and started off with three beers - Sharp's Ale, Sharp's Special and Cornish Coaster. Eighteen months later he blended Sharp's Ale and Cornish Coaster to create the new beer which became Doom Bar, named after a notorious sandbank in the nearby Camel Estuary.

In 2003 Bill sold his micro-brewery to Nick Baker and Joe Keohane. They also had little brewing experience but they had worked in the food industry and knew the importance of quality control, of using the finest ingredients and listening to their customers. They were also very ambitious, especially about creating and building a big brand, and in this respect Doom Bar more than fitted the bill.

Unlike many micro-breweries at that time, Nick and Joe weren’t interested in pretending to be an old traditional company, and made no secret of the fact that they were growing the business with a view to selling it off. And grow it did, driven by Doom Bar; their premium brand. In the year from 2009 to 2010, sales doubled. In January 2011 they reported that profits had quadrupled in the previous year after turnover leapt from £11.4million to £16.1million - a massive increase of 40 per cent.

This phenomenal growth attracted the interest of North American brewing giant Molson Coors, who bought Sharp's in February 2011 for £20million. In the first year under new ownership, sales rose by a further 22 per cent. Brewery employees and beer lovers were initially apprehensive but their fears proved unfounded. Molson Coors took the view that if it ain't broke, don't change it and immediately announced it had no intention of moving production away from Rock.
Sharp's were allowed to carry on brewing as they always had, but with Molson Coors behind them. The multi-national invested £5million in the company and also brought their marketing expertise and budgets to further fuel the expansion of this one time “hobby” brewery.

CAMRA spokesman Neil Walker, said at the time that he didn’t foresee any decline in Doom Bar's popularity, describing the brand as “a classic English beer”. He added that “The fact that it comes from Cornwall gives it even more positive connotations. People think of happy holidays they spent there. It's a beer that you can drink all day."

I tried a bottle of Doom Bar the other night; it was included amongst the beers I was given for Christmas so it seemed rude not to crack it open and give it a go. The bottled beer is slightly stronger than the cask version, weighing in at 4.3% rather than 4.0%. It’s difficult not to have pre-conceptions about a beer which has become the top-selling cask beer in Britain, but somehow I thought the bottled version would be better. Unfortunately I was wrong and I would say it’s no better and no worse than the stuff one sees on sale in pubs and bars up and down the country.

Ironically I really enjoyed my first glass of Doom Bar. Ten or more years ago, back in the days when we had our Real Ale off-licence, I was given a ticket for the Pub & Bar Show. Held in London, at either Earl’s Court or Olympia (I can’t remember which), this was a strictly “trade only” show, but being an off-licence proprietor I obviously qualified. I wasn’t overly enamoured with the show, which is probably why I never went again. If you think the trade day at GBBF is little more than a glorified “publican’s outing”, then you’ve never been to the Pub & Bar Show!

After trying various varieties of crisps and the odd cocktail, I decided it was time to head for home; after all I had an of-licence to run and my paid help was only covering the lunchtime shift. As I made my way towards the exit I came across Sharp’s trade stand, shining out like a beacon in a sea of mediocrity. With its clean modern looks and contemporary design I was quickly drawn towards it.

There was no draught beer on the stand, but they were offering tasters (500ml bottles) of their newly re-branded beer- Doom Bar. Against a backdrop of colour posters depicting the Camel Estuary where the notorious Doom Bar sand bank lurks, plus stand-ups and other point of sale material, the attractively-packaged beer was enough to draw me in to request my sample.

I can honestly say it was the best beer I had sampled in a long time, with a clean, refreshing taste to match its stylish modern appearance. I was impressed. But at the same time disappointed because despite Sharp’s presence at the trade show, there was no way at the time they would be able to send a couple of cases to our own little off-licence.
The isolated Royal Oak at Hooksway
And so it proved, because the next time I saw Doom Bar was not in bottle, but on draught at a pub deep in the West Sussex countryside. This was several years later and things had moved on. We had sold the off-licence after I was offered a much more lucrative job working back in industry. I was walking the final stage of the middle-leg of the South Downs Way with a friend, when we stopped off for lunch at the remote and unspoilt Royal Oak at Hooksway. On the bar was a hand-pull offering Doom Bar. My friend had never heard of it, but I obviously had, so we ordered a pint each.

It slipped down a treat, especially after our long and quite arduous walk all the way up from Cocking, far down in a valley to the east. The beer was so good that we had three pints to go with our light lunch, which wasn’t the best of ideas given the not inconsiderable distance we still had to cover before the day was over.

Over the next few years Doom Bar began appearing in pubs closer to home and became so popular that it even replaced former pub favourite Taylor’s Landlord in many local pubs. I tried it on several occasions, but the beer seemed to have lost some of its original character.

A natural wonder, but for how much longer?
The brewery will of course deny this; but then so did the brewers of Bass, Boddingtons, Young’s and more recently Timothy Taylor’s. Perhaps this is the fate of all “cult beers” which attract an almost messianic following and end up as victims of their own success. Doom Bar has certainly achieved national cult status; I know people who actively seek the beer out, whilst for others it is their favourite beer. However, having seen many such beers come and go over the past 40 years I wonder how long this one will last?

Wednesday, 14 January 2015

Roughing it!

I had a strange dream the other night concerning a pub. Actually it was more of a nightmare than a dream, but as in most such night-time occurrences it was confused and rather muddled.

In the dream I had to get somewhere. I had driven a considerable distance and now had to meet two people in a pub. The two people were a couple and they were friends of mine; even though they were not at all familiar. I can’t remember anything about the man, but I do recall the woman was not particularly attractive. Before I arrived at this pub I had to drive through a rather grotty looking industrial area, before parking the car and walking to the pub. It had started to rain, so I had to quicken my pace. Some idiot drove past in a silver car with a spoiler at the back. He had his windows down and was blasting out “gangsta rap” or some other discordant rubbish at a high decibel level. I mention this as it sort of sets the scene.

I can’t recall from the dream whether I met these two “friends” inside or outside the pub, but I suspect it was the former. Again I can’t remember much about the pub’s exterior, but it was a large, between the wars estate-type pub, and was in a pretty sorry condition. The dream was much more vivid once I was inside the building and the general state of unkemptness certainly extended through into the interior. 

My companions and I were in the saloon bar, which was on the right hand side of the building. There was an island-type bar and then behind this was a large room which may have been a conservatory. Whilst at the bar I could see through into the adjoining public bar, which looked in an even worse state of repair, and the customers drinking in there looked rather rough and not at all friendly. I ordered a round of drinks, but whist I can’t remember what my two companions had, I distinctly recall asking for a “pint of bitter” for myself. “We don’t sell much bitter here,” was the landlady’s reply. I had already noticed three old-style, ebony-handled, Gaskell & Chambers beer engines, but a complete absence of pump-clips. “We do have John Bull Bitter”*, was her next comment. I gave her a firm “No thank-you”, but enquired if anything was available from the hand-pumps. She reached for a glass and pulled me a pint of a quite pale looking beer.

I paid for the round, then went and sat down with my two companions at one of the tables in the rear part of the saloon. It was then I looked at my pint. It was hazy and the glass it was in was both scratched and dirty, with lime-scale deposits on the outside. It had probably never been washed properly in its entire existence, and certainly had never been polished. The beer was as flat as the proverbial “witch’s tit” but, and here’s the surprise, it actually tasted rather good!

As I sat chatting to my two “friends” I was thankful for the fact that the other customers were taking no notice of us. Like the clientele in the public bar they looked very rough and ready, so when one of my companions remarked upon the general run-down and roughness of the pub and its customers I replied with “At least there are no glasses flying through the air!” This was true but what there was instead were a load of kids running around the place.  A group of them passed our table, doing the “conga”, along with a few adults.
It was at this point that I woke up with severe cramp in my left calf. Stretching the affected leg didn’t help, so I had to hop out of bed and walk a few steps around the bedroom in order to cure the cramp. Of course the dream was gone so I never found out what happened next, nor what the pub was called, the names of my two companions or what were we all doing there. In fact if I hadn’t awakened with cramp at five in the morning I doubt whether I would have remembered anything about this rather strange dream.

No doubt there are people out there who will attempt to offer some very Freudian interpretations for this dream, but I explain it by a subconscious fear of being stuck in a grotty pub. Having said that, it’s not as though I’ve been in that many places where I have felt that uncomfortable that I wanted to walk out. There have been even fewer where I have actually fared for my safety, but I will recount one such experience which I recalled when I arose a few hours later, and which I’m sure was prompted by the dream.

The much missed Morrells Brewery
During my final year as a student at Salford, I spent a weekend in Oxford with a group of friends I was sharing a house with. One of the group had a friend studying at Oxford, and we had been invited down for the weekend to stay at this friend’s place and to spend a bit of time in the city. It wasn’t my first visit to Oxford, as I had been there with a few of the group the previous year. On that occasion we had stayed in this particular student’s rooms at Worcester College, but for his last year he had been renting a flat close to the late lamented, and much missed Morrell’s Brewery.  Morrells were still very much in operation back in the late 1970’s and sampling their beer in some of their unspoilt pubs was an added attraction of an Oxford weekend. One particular favourite was the Gardners’ Arms, an unspoilt back-street local which I’m fairly certain I have seen featured in an episode of Morse.
Gardener's Arms, Oxford

Anyway, to return to the story, Mike, my friend’s friend and our host for the weekend, told us there was a party happening on the Saturday night, and it would be a good idea to go along. Fine, we all thought, so after a lunchtime session in the Gardeners’ and a mooch around Oxford in the afternoon (this was before all day opening, don’t forget), we headed off in the direction of the party. The party was taking place at a house in Cowley; the industrial suburb of Oxford and home at the time to the famous Morris car works. Now the factory turns out Minis on behalf of its new owners, BMW, but that is not really relevant to this story. 

I’m not certain how well Mike knew the people who were throwing the party; that’s if he even knew then at all, but  back then we never let a thing like that worry us. We ended up walking to Cowley from central Oxford. I’ve no idea now how long it took, but at the time walking was the only option. We didn’t know anything about bus services in the city and a taxi was out of the question for students – after all why waste good beer money when walking would get you there in the end?  En route to Cowley we decided to stop off in a pub. This may have been to pick up some bottles of beer to take to the party, or it may have just been an excuse for a few pre-party beers – something which was quite common amongst our particular group.

The pub we went in was a large 1930’s type road house, similar to the one in my recent dream. For some reason we chose the public bar, which was on the right hand side of the pub. It’s difficult to describe exactly why, but after 40 years I can still say this was the roughest and least welcoming pub I have ever been in. I wasn’t really paying that much attention; not that is until a lighted cigarette butt flew by just an inch or two from my nose! I also heard some derogatory and rather unsavoury things being said about students. It’s probably fair to say that we stood out more than was perhaps wise, in this staunchly working class pub. It would have been better to have opted for the saloon bar instead, and it was even more unwise to have stood, as a group, in the middle of the pub, thereby drawing unnecessary attention to ourselves. Having said that, I don’t think there were any free seats or tables in the bar, so standing was most likely the only option.

Why the abject hostility? Well I can only think it was due to the old Oxford antipathy between “town & gown”. We were very obviously students, even though only two of our number were studying at Oxford. The ironic thing is that none of us came from the type of privileged background normally associated with Oxford University. Even our host Mike was the son of a Liverpool dock worker, and definitely not someone born with a silver spoon in his mouth!

Actually Mike was more astute and streetwise than the rest of us and had noticed much earlier than we had the hostile atmosphere building around us.  He indicated quietly that we ought to leave, so we did, in as orderly and less obvious manner as possible. Fortunately no-one followed us out into the car park, and we headed off to the party. I don’t remember a thing about the party, but I do remember not feeling at all concerned about the events in the pub. 

I was somewhat puzzled though, as I had been in some much more basic and down to earth pubs in Manchester and had never received such a hostile reception. With shoulder-length hair and an afghan coat, I obviously looked every bit the student, but no-one batted an eye-lid.

I want to finish this tale with a story about a Salford pub we used to drink in regularly as students and which ended up featuring on a TV programme about Britain’s Toughest Pubs. The Staff of Life at Rainsough Brow, was just up the road from Agecroft Colliery, and the massive Agecroft Power station. When my friends and I first knew the place it was a traditional Victorian two-bar local, but we frequented it because it was the nearest Marstons pub to the halls of residence. A year or so into my time at Salford, the brewery closed and demolished the old pub and built a brand new one in its place.

Staff of Life, Rainsough Brow,  Salford
The new Staff of Life was much larger than the old one but, as was the fashion at the time, retained two bars; a comfortable saloon plus an equal sized Vault, as public bars were referred to in Manchester at the time. We students favoured the saloon, especially as it had a comfortably furnished “raised area” where we could congregate and enjoy out pints of Burton Bitter or Pedigree. Occasionally though we would venture into the vault; this was a totally different world, the haunt of hard-working miners enjoying a few well-earned pints at the end of their shift. It was also home to several card schools which, as they were playing for money, were almost certainly illegal. I used to watch fascinated as one or two “old boys” would regularly fleece some of the younger players, probably taking half their wages off them!

In 1978 I moved away from he Manchester area and down to London. Twenty or so y ears later I was most surprised to see the dear old Staff of Life featuring on an episode of the Roger Cook Report when it was linked to protection money rackets by Salford and Manchester gangs.  The morbidly fascinated can see the programme by clicking on the link above. According to the Pubs of Manchester Blogspot the Staff of Life changed its name to the Rainsough Brew, an obvious pun on the road name, but closed down in the late 2000s. It has since been demolished; a sad end for an old favourite drinking haunt.

The purpose of this post is really to focus on rough pubs. They obviously still exist and most of us know which ones to avoid in our own localities. The problem arises when visiting an unfamiliar town. Again, most seasoned pub goers will pick up the vibes before even setting foot in such a place. Black paint or blacked out windows, is normally a bad sign, as is high decibel, thumping bass being pumped out, but sometimes things are more subtle but equally dangerous. The Cowley pub my friends and I visited back in the 70’s certainly looked innocuous from the outside, however once inside the door it was anything but.

Rough pubs have always existed though, with stories of rough houses down by the docks legion in most port cities. Like in most situations every cloud has a silver lining and the good side to rough pubs is that they tend to attract all the dross and local scumbags and keep them  in one place; thereby preventing their presence from ruining decent ones.

* John Bull Bitter was a famous keg beer brewed by Ind Coope of Romford during the 1970s and 80s. The company were a  part of the national Allied Breweries group.

Sunday, 11 January 2015

No More "Disgusted - Tunbridge Wells". Pt. Two

Colourful exterior at The Bedford
As recently promised, here is the second part to my tour around the pubs and bars of  Tunbridge Wells. We start at the railway, which is where the first walk-about commenced, but this time we will be heading in the opposite direction towards the historic heart of this Edwardian Spa-town.

The Bedford can either be our first port of call, or our last. It all depends on your mood and capacity for beer, as this veritable pub offers what is undoubtedly the largest selection of cask ales in the town. Either way, it is virtually impossible to miss the imposing Bedford situated at the top of the High Street, on the corner of the road bridge over the railway which leads past the station approach.

Staff at Bedford with CAMRA Pub of the Year, runner-up certificate
A former Charrington’s pub which has been popular with a couple of generations of local CAMRA members, the Bedford is now owned by Greene King; but is a pub where the management have negotiated a deal which almost  totally frees them from the GK tie. Consequently the pub majors on beers from local Kent and Sussex independents such as Kent Brewery, Whitstable, Pig & Porter, Dark Star, Long Man and Turners, alongside an interesting and varied selection of top quality cask beers from elsewhere. Up to 10 hand-pumps are in operation, and as a further incentive to cask enthusiasts the Bedford runs both a loyalty card scheme, plus a Wednesday “Cask Beer Club” night, when beers are sold at a discounted price up until 8.30pm. The pub has recently opened a real ale takeaway shop underneath the pub. The Bedford Beer Cave means that customers are now able to take their favourite beers home with them!

Rear entrance to the Compasses
If you can tear yourself away from this excellent pub, continue along the High Street in the direction of the Pantiles. A short way down on the opposite side of the road, head up the steep South Grove towards the pleasant area of parkland known as the Grove. Continue straight on and on your right  you will notice the rear entrance to the Compasses, a rambling old building which claims to be one of the oldest pubs in Tunbridge Wells.
Like the Bedford, the Compasses is also owned by Greene King, but serves a more limited range. With several interconnected rooms and separate drinking areas, the Compasses offers a chance to escape the crowds and enjoy a few moments of quiet contemplation. This is not to say that the pub doesn’t get busy; it is just that its layout gives itself to small and sometimes intimate groups. I remember the pub from its days under Whitbread, and as a comfortable and traditional alehouse it hasn’t changed all that much. It is therefore well worth popping in if you are in the area.

Grove Tavern, Little Mount Sion
The front entrance to the Compasses will lead you out into Little Mount Sion; an area of narrow and in places part cobbled streets, with a mix of substantial early Victorian houses and charming, cosy cottages. Mount Sion is often referred to as the “Village” area of Tunbridge Wells, and despite the obvious parking problems, is a very desirable part of the town to live in.

Carry on a short distance down Little Mount Sion towards the Grove Tavern; the next pub on our itinerary and another contender for the title of Tunbridge Well’s oldest pub. This tiny and cosy “L”-shaped pub attracts its own loyal crowd of regulars, but also offers a friendly welcome to visitors from further a field. With an open fire in winter and some lively conversation at the bar, visitors are soon made to feel at home here. The Grove is basically a drinkers and a sports enthusiast’s pub, but is none the worse for that. Harvey’s Sussex Best, plus Taylor’s Landlord are the regular beers, with a couple of guests normally on sale alongside.

The Mount Edgcumbe
I would suggest ending this particular crawl here, as the Pantiles, which is the next area of interest to the drinker is worth a section in its own right. However, if you are still feeling thirsty and the weather is clement, why not take a walk up across Tunbridge Wells Common to the Mount Edgcumbe. You will need a good map for this one I’m afraid, as it’s difficult to give good written directions, but basically head back down towards the High Street and then cut across to the A26 London Road. Follow the road up via the edge of the common until you reach Mount Edgcumbe Road on your left. Head up here, but now you are definitely on your own. Furthermore, do not attempt to try and find this pub-cum-restaurant at dusk, as a friend and I tried to do last year, as you will inevitably get lost amongst the maze of footways and paths which criss-cross  the common!

Alternatively, treat yourself to a taxi and you will then arrive via the rough-track which leads down from the top of the common at Mount Ephraim. I haven’t a huge amount to say about the Mount Edgcumbe. I have eaten there several times in the past, but that was under different management, back when the place was known as La Galoche. I can’t vouch for the food now, but the pub part of this imposing Georgian building is quite interesting with a section of the bar area cut into the rock, forming a sort of “cave”.

"Cave Bar", Mount Edgcumbe
Harvey’s Sussex Best is the pub’s mainstay, alongside an ever changing list of beers from the likes of Dark Star, Tonbridge, Rother Valley, Larkins and Hop Daemon. A double word of advice; unless there are still several hours of daylight remaining, get a taxi back to the station - even if you managed to find your way here on foot! Enough said, but I don’t want to be responsible for you walking around the wooded areas of the common for days on end, or for you falling off one of the rocky outcrops which are scattered all over the place. You have been warned!

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Tunbridge Wells Re-visited

Several weeks ago I published a post about some of the pubs of  Tunbridge Wells. The post was the first in a series of possibly three, but definitely two articles about pubs in this well-known Spa-town, and I’m conscious of the fact that I’ve still to write the follow ups! Last Wednesday though our local CAMRA branch held a post-festive season crawl of the northern part of the town which took in three of the pubs mentioned. As it happened, only a few hardy (fool-hardy?) souls managed all three, as for many of us there was work the following day. This is what we found.

Our group met in dribs and drabs at Sankey’s; a well-known pub and fish restaurant at the top of the town. The pub wasn’t exactly heaving, but there were still a few very mixed groups of people in there. After a bit of shuffling around, we parked ourselves over by the front window, just about close enough to the welcoming log fire. On the cask front there was Long Man American APA, plus Tonbridge Copper Nob. Craft keg offerings included beers from Brew Dog, Flying Dog, Magic Rock, Four Pure and Thornbridge.
Beer List - Sankey's

I started with a pint of Long Man American APA; always a very pleasant and well-hopped American Pale Ale. Later I graduated to the Chipotle Punchline Chocolate Porter from Magic Rock; an interesting beer with a spiciness from the chipotle chillies which was quite subtle at first but which then slowly grew on one and became quite noticeable towards the end.

Hot Chocolate!
I didn’t have any more beers at Sankey's as I was  mindful of work in the morning and that there were two more pubs to visit. One thing I was impressed with about the place, apart from the excellent range of beers, was the knowledge of the barman who not only informed us of the characteristics of the beers we wanted to try, but also gave us a bit of background information about the breweries concerned. Full marks there!

I could quite happily have stayed at Sankey’s for the rest of the evening, but the group wanted to move on, so we walked down the hill to the next pub on the itinerary. Fuggles Beer Café was slightly busier than Sankey’s but was not as rammed as I have seen it at the weekends. We managed to find a seat close to the window and then set about sampling a few of the many excellent beers they had on offer.

I kicked off with a pint of Porter from Burning Sky. Smooth and dark, with a slight hint of smokiness, this was just the right beer for a cold, damp January night. I followed the porter with a glass of Salopian Oracle; a citrussy, light golden pale ale with just the right amount of “bite”. My final beer of the evening was the 6.5% IPA, from Four Pure Brewery of Bermondsey. This big bold IPA is hopped with Chinook and Cascade hops and certainly packs a punch.

Beer  List - Fuggles
This last drink was a craft-keg beer and tasted all the better for being served slightly chilled. Some of our group were tempted by the 5.9% ABV Crème Brulée Stout from Dark Star. With vanilla beans, plus a mix of roasted malts and lactose, this beer was a trifle too sweet for my tastes, although the vanilla did come across well. This beer was on cask and may have been a safer bet than the 10% ABV Cocoa Psycho Stout from Brew Dog! Interestingly, the Magic Rock Chipotle Punchline Chocolate Porter, sampled earlier at Sankey’s, was also on sale at Fuggles.

People started to drift off slowly; some had buses to catch, but a few brave souls nipped along to the Opera House, our local JDW outlet. I later heard reports from a couple of them that the beer quality there wasn’t quite up to scratch. A friend and stayed in the pub until about 10.45pm, before making our way down the hill to the station. It was just as well that we’d gone for the penultimate train as services were being delayed due to a broken down train.

It had been a good evening, with a good attendance. It’s not often West Kent CAMRA sees numbers hitting double figures at branch socials! The event had also demonstrated the varied and thriving beer scene in Tunbridge Wells; something which is sadly lacking nearby Tonbridge where I happen to live.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Good Things to Come?

In the last two posts I looked back at last year from the perspective of a beer enthusiast, taking stock, if you like, on what happened during 2014. Now that Christmas is over, thank-goodness, it is worth looking ahead at the coming year, at what I’ve got planned and at what might be in store. After all, the month of January is named after Janus, the Roman God of beginnings and transitions; a figure who is sometimes portrayed as having two heads – one looking forward and one looking back. Janus thus represents all beginnings and possesses the ability to see all things past and future.

Well, as I alluded to in a previous post, 2015 sees my wife Eileen and I marking a significant birthday, and we are currently engaged in looking at ways in which to celebrate it. We’ll probably hold a party for family and friends. We will also try and complete one or two significant projects in both house and garden. Primarily though we are looking at a river cruise taking in some of the treasures of either western or central Europe.

The party and the cruise will almost certainly involve beer, although the exact timings and form of both events is yet to be determined. Two beer-related happenings though have already been arranged; the first is a week’s holiday in the Czech Republic during May, whilst the second will be the 2015 European Beer Bloggers Conference, which this year takes place in Brussels. I haven’t yet booked my place on the latter, but the former has been arranged since last June.

When most people talk about visiting the Czech Republic, they usually mean they will be spending their time in Prague. And why would you not want to? The Czech capital is a beautiful city with over a thousand years of history behind it, and has now become a “must see” attraction on many tourist itineraries. I wouldn’t argue with that, as I have made four visits myself to Prague during the last 30 years, and consider it one of my favourite cities. However, there is much more to the Czech Republic than its capital city, and the visit I will be making in May is one which takes in other, equally beautiful and significant parts of the country and, from a cultural point of view is important in that it has been organised by a friend with close family connections to the Czech Republic.

It all began when I was talking to an old friend who for many years has been a leading light in Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA. In fact he has probably been involved with that branch for an even longer period than that which I played within West Kent branch. The conversation took place on last year’s Good Friday Ramble, whilst we were walking back from our lunchtime stop of the Windmill, at Sevenoaks Weald.

It transpired that my friend was arranging a trip to Czech for 2015 which would be based in the town of Jihlava. Jihlava is situated in the Vysočina Region of the Czech Republic, on the Jihlava River, which forms the historical border between Moravia and Bohemia.  The plan is to fly out to Prague on day one of the trip and then travel by coach to Jihlava. I am planning to fly out a couple of days earlier and will meet the dozen other members of the party either at the coach station in Prague, or in Jihlava itself. Day two has a morning tour of the Bernard Brewery in Humpolec scheduled, followed by an afternoon visit to Velké Meziříčí (Jelinkova Vila brewpub).

Telč, Czech Republic
Day three is devoted to sight-seeing combined with a bit of culture, with visits to the towns of Slavonice and Telč. The latter is a UNESCO World Heritage Site. More beer follows on day four, which is the last full day of the trip. We will be visiting the Chotebor Pivovar microbrewery, followed by the Rebel brewpub of Havlickuv Brod. The final day will mean an early departure for Prague, followed by the flight home.

As it’s a trip which combines beer appreciation with culture it should be doubly interesting, and will afford the opportunity of seeing parts of the Czech Republic which most western tourists rarely visit. Both Slavonice and Telč look stunningly beautiful. On the beer front the Bernard Brewery produces some of the country’s best beers, and the other breweries/brew-pubs on the itinerary all look interesting.

Franconian Beer Festival
Following the Czech trip there’s a possibility of visiting the annual Franconian Beer Festival which takes place in Nuremberg at the beginning of June. Held in the moat of the city’s imposing and historic castle, around 40 local breweries take part, offering around 100 different beers. The festival does not appear that well known outside of Germany; the official website is in German only (not a problem for me, but not really likely to encouraged visitors from other countries). I say possibility, as the festival follows hot on the heels of the Czech trip, so it may be an event I will have to save for next year instead!

It appears that everything is happening around May-June time, but prior to that the CAMRA Members Weekend and National AGM will be taking place in Nottingham in the middle of April. Again I’m tempted, but only for the craic and the local pub scene, as a load of turgid debates and procedural rigmarole doesn’t appeal at all. I’ll have to see whether finances and brownie points permit my attendance. 
Requiring more immediate attention are three beer festivals coming up at the end of January/beginning of February. The first takes place at Stonch’s pub, the Finborough Arms, in Earl's Court, London, in the form of a Winter Ales Festival from Friday 23rd - Sunday 25th January. The following weekend the Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough will be holding their Dark & Delicious Winter Beers Festival, (see previous post), and then a week later, our local rugby club, Tonbridge Juddians (TJ’s), will be hosting their own winter beer festival (not exclusively winter ales). I will need to decide which to go to, although I’m temped to go to all three!  

A beer festival will be returning to TJ’s in the summer, as for the last six years the club has hosted the SIBA South East Regional Beer Festival, when most SIBA members within the region will be exhibiting their beers. Providing the weather is good, and it isn’t always – the 2012 event had to be cancelled due to flooding, this is one of the best regional festivals, with the event taking place in a large marquee adjacent to the clubhouse, overlooking the extensive riverside setting of Tonbridge Sports Ground. It also affords an unrivalled opportunity to sample beers from all over the south east region.

The Great British Beer Festival
On the subject of beer festivals, we mustn’t forget CAMRA’s Great British Beer Festival which takes place at Olympia in August; an event I missed last year, due to double booking, but one I am determined to attend last year. As I mentioned in my previous post, son Matthew and I have promised to chaperone my wife’s niece Heidi and her partner Phil around the event and to introduce them to beers which will knock the socks off the likes of Doom Bar et al

The fact that so many of events clash is symptomatic of the dilemma facing many a beer hunter, but is also a sign of a healthy and vibrant brewing and beer appreciation scene and is therefore no bad thing. A further clash comes in August when a week before the European Beer Bloggers Conference in Brussels, over in Franconia the famous Bamberg Sandkerwa will be taking place.

Sandkerwa, Bamberg
Sandkerwa is a six day folk festival which embraces the entire town of Bamberg, with around 300,000 people attending each year. The festival takes place in the Sandstrasse area of the city and its neighbouring alleys. It is basically a street festival with local breweries serving from their permanent establishments and visiting breweries wedged into every available nook and cranny in what is one of the oldest parts of Bamberg.  There are food vendors everywhere and tables are set up in the streets for drinkers to sit at and enjoy the beer and food.

It all sounds very jolly and is another event which features high on my beer wish-list, but like the Franconian Beer Festival is something which may have to be postponed until next year!

Sunday, 4 January 2015

2014 - The Year in Beer Part 2

Continuing my look back at 2014 from a beery perspective I now want to reflect on the handful of beer festivals I attended. As might be guessed from that last sentence, there wasn’t that many, with just two CAMRA events and one pub beer festival that I went along to.

My biggest faux-pas of the year was forgetting that the Great British Beer Festival had been moved back a week. Blissfully unaware of this fact I went gaily ahead and booked our week’s holiday in Munich. It was only when my wife’s niece and her partner asked which day Matt and I were planning to go along to Olympia that I realised my error. Both Heidi and Phil are relative newcomers to the world of decent beer, so it would have been good to have accompanied them to GBBF and introduce them to some of the beery delights the event has on offer.

Given the size and scope of the festival, some guidance is definitely needed, especially if one wants to avoid the plethora of similar tasting golden ales or the dullness of the myriad of “boring brown bitters”. OK, those are not my words, but there is an understandable preponderance of these types of beers, and of course not all are by any means bad. It’s often a case though of not being able to see the wood for the trees, so this year I hope to be of assistance to a new generation of  younger beer enhusiasts.

As it happened, I attended just the Kent Festival at Canterbury, plus my own branch’s event held in conjunction with the Spa Valley Railway during 2014. I enjoyed the first event far more than the second, despite the searing July heat. This was because I was one of the key organisers of the Spa Valley Railway Festival and with all the rushing around involved, to say nothing of the months of pre-planning, it was very difficult to relax and enjoy myself. Canterbury on the other hand was somewhere I could let my hair down and get into some serious beer sampling.
Kent Beer Festival, Merton Farm, Canterbury
Last years Kent Festival was the 40th such event, and was memorable for being organiser Gill Keay’s last festival. Gill had enjoyed an un-broken run of being in charge of all 40 festivals; an achievement which is almost certainly unequalled in the annals of the Campaign for Real Ale. This year, she will be able to take a well-earned rest and enjoy the festival, rather than having to worry about how things are going. Mind you, she looked pretty laid back last year; something which can surely only come with the wisdom and hindsight of running festivals over a period of  four decades!

As for the Spa Valley event; it was a qualified success, but unlike the previous year was not a complete sell-out. Apart from the bulk of the beer, which is sold at SVR’s Tunbridge Wells West HQ, there are bars at the two stations down the line (Groombridge & Eridge), as well as on the trains. This makes the event a logistical nightmare, especially as communications with the other two stations are patchy at best, due to poor mobile phone reception. Looking back it’s difficult to remember which beers really stood out, but I do recall some excellent porters from the likes of Hastings, Sambrooks and Portobello, together with some equally excellent “Green Hop” ales.

For the past three years our festival has made a feature of these seasonal specials, especially as the event coincides with the end of the hop-picking season It was therefore especially good to see local brewer, Larkins collect the “Beer of the Festival” award for their Green Hop Beer. We will be visiting the brewery to present their certificate later this year.

Last month I took the decision to step down as beer buyer for the festival, and also from the organising committee. 2015 sees both Eileen and I celebrating a significant birthday ( NOT 21 again!), and with this in mind we will both be focused on other things. The year also marks 30 years of my involvement with West Kent CAMRA – literally half a lifetime (oops, I given away  which significant birthday we'll be marking), so it seemed doubly appropriate to stand down from playing an active role within the branch. I will still attend branch socials as well as other activities which take my fancy, but I can’t describe the feeling of relief and lightening of the load this decision had brought.

Cooper's Arms, Crowborough
The pub beer festival I went to was the famous Dark & Delicious Winter Beers Festival held annually at the unspoilt Cooper’s Arms in Crowborough. A bus ride followed by a 20 minute walk brings one to this delightful pub on the outskirts of Crowborough and on the edge of Ashdown Forest. Crowborough is also the highest town in South East England, and has a reputation for being cold and windy. The Cooper’s is a “quiet pub”, in respect of no recorded music or fruit machines. I first knew it when it was a Charrington’s pub, back in the 1980’s. It then passed to Greene King, before eventually becoming a free-house.

There were twelve Dark and Delicious Winter beers on sale, all dispensed from several banks of hand pumps dotted along the bar. The beers which really stood out were Dark Monro, a 4.0% chocolate and coffee flavoured dark mild from Highland Brewery. (Their 5.0% Oat Stout was also very good). “Rhatas”, a rich dark bitter from Black Dog Brewery of Melmerby, North Yorkshire, was very enjoyable, but the star of the show, as far as I was concerned, was the award-winning 1872 Porter from Elland Brewery in West Yorkshire. This was a most enjoyable festival and I hope to be going along to this year’s event, which is probably coming up at the beginning of next month.

Tillingbourne presentation
At the beginning of March a group of West Kent CAMRA members visited Tillingbourne Brewery, at its stunning location high up in the Surrey Hills. The brewery’s 3.3% ABV The Source had won “Beer of the Festival” at the previous year’s SVR Festival, so we were invited to the brewery to present their certificate. Travelling by mini-coach our party of 22 arrived shortly after midday on what was officially the first day of spring.

The sunny weather helped the “feel good factor”, and it certainly was pleasant being out in the early spring sunshine.We spent an interesting couple of hours looking around the brewery whilst sampling three of the brewery’s beers: Falls Gold, Bouncing Bomb and Hop Troll. Our visit was followed by a pre-booked late lunch at the King William IV in the nearby village of West Horsley.

Old House, Ightham Common
That was the only brewery visit of the year, but other highlights of 2014 included a couple of tutored beer tasting sessions. I went to the first of these events, which took place in January at the 16th Century Crown Inn at Groombridge, right on the Kent-Sussex border. Conducted by Iain, our branch chairman, we were taught how to properly assess beer by taking into account its appearance, aroma, taste and mouth-feel. The tastings were conducted on two beers from Black Cat Brewery which, at the time, were brewed just down the road. Following a change of ownership, the brewery has now relocated to Palehouse Common, which is just a few miles down the road from Groombridge.

Throughout the year there were also a number of bus rips and rambles to some of the areas most unspoilt and hard to get to country pubs plus, of course, the annual Good Friday Ramble, organised by Maidstone & Mid-Kent CAMRA On our bus trip to the Fountain, in the tiny Wealden village of Cowden, we saw off the last of the season’s Old Ale from Harvey’s. We also re-visited the National Inventory-listed Old House at Ightham Common.
Real pie, plus Harvey's Old - Fountain, Cowden
One final point which is certainly worth mentioning was my joining the British Guild of Beer Writers; the organisation which represents all those who write about beer, from professional journalists to Bloggers like me who write purely for my own enjoyment. This was something I had been meaning to do for a long time, and having been accepted into the Guild I feel that my writing has now come of age.

So here’s to an equally beer-filled 2015!